Britain's Dragons Are Now its Best-Known Business People

Andrew Cave
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Fiery funders: Jenny Campbell and Tej Lalvani (Source: PHA Media)

It’s time to face reality. One can almost hear Deborah Meaden, Peter Jones or another veteran of TV’s hard-bitten entrepreneur dreams-shattering Dragons Den saying it to a hapless contestant whose figures just don’t stack up.

Except this time it’s the BBC2 show’s two newest leviathans Jenny Campbell and Tej Lalvani who perhaps need the wake-up call.
I have just suggested that, halfway through the 15th and their first series of the show, they had better get ready to become ranked among Britain’s most recognisable business tycoons.

“I don’t believe that,” says Campbell in her earthy northern accent. “I’ll just put my glasses on, put my hair up and put on my cap and nobody will know who I am.”
She had better get used to it. Unlike in America, where tech executives like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, former Microsoft boss Bill Gates and his one-time nemesis Oracle chairman Larry Ellison are pure Hollywood, the chief executives of the top ten companies in Britain’s FTSE100 index could walk into a crowded pub, even in the City, and not be recognised by a single soul.

Of Britain’s business figures, only Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, Lord Sugar of Apprentice-land and TV’s fire-breathing dragons, into whose ranks Campbell and Lalvani have slipped alongside Meaden, Jones and Touker Souleyman, are likely to turn heads in the High Street.

Are they prepared for this, I ask again. “No,” laughs Lalvani. “I still don’t believe it,” insists Campbell. “We girls can do things with make-up and hair. It’s Tej who will have the problem.”


She agrees that her publicly-quoted sisters are pretty anonymous though.
“There are still only seven female CEOs in the FTSE100, aren’t there,” she asks. "And can anybody name them? People can’t even list them, never mind know what they look like."

It’s unlikely to be a problem for Campbell if she sticks around on the show.
In the latest series, she and Lalvani replaced Sarah Willingham and Nick Jenkins - because, it is said, the latter were not making enough investments.

Without giving too much away, I can reveal that the new two-some will comfortably come top in the deal-making stakes in the latest series.
It’s a big-spending series with a total of £1.75m being invested by the five dragons – second only to the £1.8m invested in series ten – and 26 investments in all, a new record.

Vitamin king Lalvani, founder of Vitabiotics, Britain’s largest vitamin company, selling its wares in 100 countries, ends up as the biggest spender on the series shelling out £402,500.
Lalvani's family has a pedigree in popular TV shows. Lalvani's father, a pharmacist and vitamins scientist in Bangalore, India, even found his wife there.

"She was Miss India and Miss World and he said: 'That's the girl I want to marry,' and he ended up marrying her," he says. "He had a connection and ended up arranging a meeting and convinced her that she should marry him. That was in 1972 and I was born two years later.
"I came to Britain with my family when I was one year old and the sort of determination that my father demonstrated has filtered down to me."

Experience and style

Lalvani joined his father's vitamins business after university and has worked there for 20 years, helping expand turnover from a few hundred thousand pounds to £300m.
He says his style on Dragon's Den is to start with what he knows but to not restrict himself to any one sector.
"I like technology and there's a lot of technology in my business," he says. "But I don't want to have a pigeonhole of what I want to invest in.
"Initially, you think you can add value in your particular areas but after a while you realise that entrepreneurs have similar challenges to you.
"It's about how they grow their business and what kind of marketing activities I can add value to. Are there distribution areas that my global footprint of international business can help with?"

Campbell took a different route to business success, growing up in Cheshire as the daughter of a banker father and secretary mother and leaving school at 16 to take a job at NatWest Bank.
Her first role in 1978 included filling automated teller machines with cash and printing chequebooks but she climbed the career ladder, becoming a qualified banker by the age of 23.
She spent 30 years at NatWest, moving to the City in 1999, a year before
"I found it very difficult in London," she says. "I found it full of toffee-nosed, Southern men who were very biased about northern say-it-how-it-is women.

However, a year later, NatWest found itself at the centre of a hostile takeover battle. It fought off Bank of Scotland but ended up succumbing to that bank's great rival, Royal Bank of Scotland.
Campbell was seconded onto NatWest's bid defence team and RBS's takeover gave her the opportunity to progress up the business, helping the bank integrate its acquisitions.
Then in 2006, she became director of operations at Hanco ATM Systems, a cash machines business that RBS had bought two years earlier.
'It was totally out of control, losing £7m a year," she says. "We had 6,000 cash machines but the phones were ringing off the hook; the processes were all broken."
Campbell turned around the business, renaming it YourCash, and then led a management buy-out of it in 2010 and a secondary buyout 30 months later. By the time the business was sold in October 2016, it was making profits of £7m a year.
"I had never done any mergers and acquisitions work before," she said, "but I do know how to get people behind me."

Now, Campbell is using her discovery of the entrepreneur in her to offer funds to others.
"I was asked when I won a businesswoman of the year award in 2014 what had taken me so long to become an entrepreneur," she says.
"But if you look back 100 years, my grandparents were entrepreneurs. One of them owned and ran a printing business and the other had a building business, building many of the houses and pubs in Hyde, Cheshire where I grew up in the house that my grandad built.
"It was aways there one generation above me, that entrepreneurship. Now I'm in the Den with a blank piece of paper."